What does Ducati do with its embarrassment of MotoGP rider riches?

If the 2021 MotoGP World Championship was a fantastic night out for Ducati then it is now waking up to a hangover of what to do in 2022 and 2023...

Pecco Bagnaia - Ducati Corse, MotoGP 2021

There was a point in 2020 that Ducati gave the impression it had been given the bum deal in contract negotiations for the 2021 MotoGP World Championship season.

It had missed out on the chance to hire the likes of Fabio Quartararo, Joan Mir and Alex Rins, Andrea Dovizioso walked away from the negotiating table and many felt it failed to score the open goal that was the world title in the absence of Marc Marquez.

Indeed, while Miller was already signed to the factory team long before the delayed 2020 MotoGP season got underway, Ducati gave the impression it wasn’t wholly convinced promoting Bagnaia from Pramac Racing was the right move.

What a difference a year makes… 

Having its hand forced may have felt alien to a Ducati team used to getting what it wants the moment it opens its blank cheque book, but sticking with two proteges eager to impress, adding experience in Johann Zarco and taking a punt on youngsters Jorge Martin and Enea Bastianini proved inspired.

Consequently, it allowed the team to focus on honing the clearly capable Ducati GP20/GP21 package around riders well versed in the more divisive intricacies of its set-up, rather than get a more ‘set in their ways’ rider to adapt to it, and the results speak for themselves.

With eight bikes - four GP22s and four GP21s - in its Armada for next year, it means Ducati heads into the 2022 MotoGP World Championship as the logical favourites to continue what it started in the second-half of this season.

But with most scorching stretches often comes a storm to break the heatwave and Ducati faces something of a headache when it comes to arranging its riders for 2023.

The hangover of a fantastic MotoGP season

I use the term ‘headache’ loosely. Ducati would rather be in a situation where it is playing a game of chess with too many pieces than not enough. But that doesn’t mean it can’t afford to rest on its laurels.

To an extent Bagnaia’s success in 2021 presents a problem for Ducati in 2022. There is no doubting the Italian’s talent even if his first two seasons in MotoGP were peppered with enough dips in form and errors to warrant what should have been a third season on the Pramac bike.

Then Dovizioso called it quits, and yet there was talk of Zarco being promoted above Bagnaia. That never transpired and Bagnaia repaid the faith shown by Ducati with a tremendous year, one that really gathered momentum in the closing stages.

Look at it from a more cynical point of view though and Ducati should have won the 2021 MotoGP World Championship over Fabio Quartararo and Yamaha. Bagnaia threw away two crucial successes at Mugello and Misano, while his qualifying performances in the early half of the year left a lot to be desired.

Then again, it is the measure of the rider that not only did he bounce back from these potentially season-defining errors, but did so with interest, his wins in Aragon and Misano (Pt.1) under intense pressure some of the best performances of recent years.

However, as I intimated earlier, it was this continuation of Miller and Bagnaia - albeit in different colours - that helped Ducati turn the GP21 into the motorcycle it has been trying to build for years. 

There is no doubting the Ducati is a rocket in a straight line but it’s deficiencies under braking and turning negated this strength. Miller and Bagnaia, plus Zarco and of course Michele Pirro, knuckled down in 2021, taking advantage of the technical freeze to allow themselves the chance to simply tweak and test those weaknesses without harming the strengths. 

This wouldn’t have likely happened had Mir, Rins or Quartararo come on board… just ask Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and Cal Crutchlow.

Diving into the Ducati MotoGP talent pool

The 2022 MotoGP season is a long way from starting but now is the time managers earn their 15% with negotiations for 2023 beginning in earnest.

This presents a problem for Ducati. If Bagnaia is a nailed-on certainty to stay with Ducati for 2023 and beyond, then things are a little more uncertain in a Ducati talent pool that is taking on another two riders in 2022.

As it stands, Ducati faces a dilemma in deciding whether to wait until the 2022 MotoGP season has started to decide on its line-up for 2023. For now, only two seats beyond 2022 are assured - Franco Morbidelli at Yamaha and Marc Marquez at Honda, though the latter might be dependent on his increasingly worrisome fitness levels.

It’s fair to say Miller’s long-awaited first season as a factory rider didn’t meet expectations. He started the year well with back-to-back wins, though they came with some fortune after Fabio Quartararo pumped him arm down the order in Jerez and Le Mans was a wet weather free-for-all. 

Thereafter Miller didn’t look like he was fighting for wins anywhere else, allowing Bagnaia to steal a march on what should have been the Aussie’s team leader status by the year’s end.

Miller is an investment Ducati won’t want to throw away but right now it is neck-and-neck in the betting odds as to whether it will be him or Martin it wants on the scarlet Ducati GP23.

In Miller’s defence, 2021 should have been a trial run in the shadow of Dovizioso during which he proved a better foil than the outgoing Danilo Petrucci - something he comfortably achieved - before targeting the title in 2022, but those plans were thrown awry. What wasn’t expected and what hasn’t helped Miller is Bagnaia emerging as the firm’s top candidate.

It doesn’t help either that Martin emerged as one of the breakthrough riders of 2021. The Spaniard had no business landing a pole position and podium in only his second MotoGP race, before he did what Miller, Bagnaia and countless others had failed to do in previous years by taking Pramac Racing to the top of the podium in Austria.

Four pole positions, four podiums and one win was an excellent return on an injury-hampered rookie campaign.

That said, dig beneath the statistics and there are some doubts Martin is ready for Ducati red come 2023. Mistakes were frequent - perhaps understandable for a rookie - while his less headline grabbing results weren’t all that sparkling either.

The same can be said for the arguable standout rider of 2021, Moto2 champion Enea Bastianini, who produced some outstanding performances on the two-year old Avintia Ducati GP19. His podiums at Misano - achieved with some extraordinary race day pace - were the rides of the season, period.

While we’ll reserve some judgement on some of his poor qualifying results by virtue of his much older machinery, Bastianini performed some miracles in 2021 that in many ways outshone Martin.

And herein lies Ducati’s issue. It has three riders with huge potential that won’t be better understood until the first few rounds of 2022. But can it afford to wait that long… ?

Ducati and a bad case of FOMO

Of course, Ducati’s future plans don’t just hinge within its own quarters… and its riders won’t hinge their futures on Ducati either.

Indeed, Ducati could find itself in a tricky bargaining position if it does wait until the start of the 2022 season to decide on how to shuffle its assets for 2023. In the meantime, the likes of Suzuki, Honda and Yamaha might be able to catch the attention of Miller, Martin and Bastianini if it can assure them factory-machinery and/or a more defined roadmap going forward if Ducati hesitates.

Not only that, Ducati won’t just be looking within. New champion Quartararo has left the door ever so slightly ajar on alternative deals beyond Yamaha for 2023 and made it rather clear emails to him won’t necessarily bounce back…

It’s a temptation Ducati is going to find hard to resist even if observers might point out that it shouldn’t allow itself a case of FOMO (fear of missing out) if it focuses on what it already has.

And to think, we haven’t even started on Johann Zarco, who despite another win-less season was Ducati’s top candidate for much of the year, while Marco Bezzecchi has all the qualities - and backing - to ‘do a Bastianini’ in 2022.

In conclusion, there is nothing ‘silly’ about Ducati’s impending ‘silly season’... returning to that chess analogy, Ducati needs to think very carefully about its next moves if it wants to check-mate the opposition.

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